Nov 12, 2018 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Climate change is getting too big and divisive to solve

Illustration of the earth as an unsolved Rubick's cube.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America’s divisive politics and the sheer math of cutting heat-trapping emissions indicate the world’s prospect of substantively tackling climate change is getting out of reach.

Why it matters: We often talk about this issue as though big solutions are coming sooner or later. But in fact, it’s a big “if,” not “when,” America and the world will do anything close to what scientists say is needed to avoid the worst impacts of a warmer world.

The math is a big problem. It’s like if you had a marathon in one direction, and instead you turn around and start running in the other direction.

  • A United Nations scientific panel said in a report released last month the world needs to cut carbon dioxide emissions nearly in half within the next 11 years.
  • In about 30 years, the report says emissions should be zero.
  • Since the industrial revolution, the world’s emissions have not gone down except briefly during economic crises, which isn't a desirable way to cut emissions.
  • After a couple years of remaining flat, global emissions are going back up.
  • Fossil fuels accounted for 81% of the world's energy consumption in 1987. Thirty years later it's still 81%.

The politics are another big problem. Among all the topics Americans disagree about, I consider climate change the most divisive. With other policies, like health care and immigration, people generally agree the topic at least exists.

  • That’s not the case with climate change. Conservative Americans are increasingly skeptical that human activity is driving Earth’s temperature up, according to one recent poll. To be clear, it is.
  • That skepticism is reflected in President Trump and most congressional Republicans, who don’t acknowledge climate change is a problem.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats say they want to address the problem, but whether they actually will is an open question, particularly with Republicans still controlling the Senate and White House.

  • With control of the House next year, Democrats are likely to revive a committee on global warming whose purpose is messaging, not legislating.
  • When they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House early in Barack Obama’s administration, Democrats couldn’t get through major climate policy.

Some big oil and natural gas companies are slowly beginning to lobby for a carbon tax in Washington, but last week’s midterm elections show that when the industry faces an imminent threat, they bury it with money.

  • Led by BP and Chevron, oil companies poured more than $30 million into defeating a ballot initiative in Washington state that would have put a fee on carbon emissions and used the money mostly on clean-energy projects.
  • The fact one of America’s most progressive states keeps failing at passing a substantive climate policy — it’s been trying for a decade — suggests herculean obstacles for other state and national efforts.

On the world’s ambition, rhetoric far outpaces action. Virtually all countries except the U.S. are committed to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, but...

  • Most countries aren’t on track to meet their targets, which are mostly too weak anyway, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a research group.
  • The plan was for countries to ratchet up their targets in the coming years, but if you had trouble running a 5K, would you sign up for a marathon? Probably not.
  • The number of governments adopting policies that put a price on CO2 emissions, which the UN report says is essential, is increasing. “But, many of the newer ones are quite small and have lots of loopholes." said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan professor who just wrote a book on the topic.
  • Existing carbon taxes are also far lower than what the UN report says is needed to effectively cut emissions: The lowest figure mentioned was $135 per ton by 2030.

This is where I write a “to be sure” paragraph mentioning examples disputing my argument. Instances do exist that show progress on climate change, but they’re not nearly big enough to counteract everything I’ve mentioned.

  • California, the world’s fifth largest economy, recently passed legislation calling for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.
  • Several governors who support clean energy were elected in last week’s midterms.
  • States that have committed to addressing climate change despite Trump represent a minority of America’s emissions.
  • Wall Street and big companies are getting increasingly supportive of addressing climate change, but don’t expect capitalistic minds to lead on addressing a decades-long problem whose impact is much less acute than quarterly profit and loss.

By now, you’re probably thinking I’m such a downer — or wasting my time writing about a problem you think doesn’t exist or is overblown.

The thing with journalism is that it’s not my job to try to bring you hope or despair, but instead, an authentic, honest view of where things stand.

What's next: Why we should focus more on adapting to a warmer world

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